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1979

  The 70’s, a decade dominated by loud clothes, long hair, racing cars disguised as mobile fag packets and some bloody great music was drawing to a close and the winds of change were blowing (both literally and figuratively) through the sport. Ground Effects, the black art of channelling air-flow under the car to increase down-force and grip was the new holy grail while Regie’s turbo charged engine was finally showing that it could actually last a race before imitating Mt Etna. Those new fangled gizmos called computers were starting to be used to log data, now that’s a fad that will pass---. The dubious benefits of professionalism were being seen sprouting at the fringes as the governing authority decided that it wanted to run the sport, not that jumped up little pommie bugger who was running the sport and making it actually more professional, not more chaotic. Over the next few years, not only would that squalid struggle threaten to tear the sport to shreds but drivers would be expected to toe the corporate line instead of saying what they actually thought and behaving like the loonies they were. The days where the likes of James Hunt wearing T-shirts stating “If you think my girlfriend can fight, you should see her box” or having stickers on their helmets announcing “SEX – The breakfast of champions” were sadly numbered. The era of the character was coming to a mind-numbing, politically correct end. Bugger!! 

 

  During the off-season, reigning champions, Lotus, had lost their long time sponsor, John Player Special, who quite understandably felt that loosing two Swedish drivers in two years was just not quite the publicity they were after. Super Swede, Ronnie Peterson having died after the chaotic start of the Italian Grand Prix and the up and coming Gunnar Nilsson, who was the Lotus number two in 1977 would succumb to testicular cancer just a month later. JPS were replaced with the Italian Martini & Rossi drinks concern as the title sponsor and they would be joined mid season by Essex Petroleum. World champion Mario Andretti stayed on expecting to be in contention for a second title and he was joined by the second most successful driver of 1978, Ferrari refugee, Carlos Reutemann. With such a strong driver line-up it was expected that Lotus would continue their dominance as their 1978 car, the Lotus 79, was so far ahead of its rivals.

   Unfortunately for Lotus, their rivals played catch-up faster than expected while Lotus’s new challenger the 80 was plagued with problems. They began the year with a slightly modified 79 which was at least competitive in the South American races, mostly because the major rivals were also using upgraded versions of their ’78 cars. Reutemann started third in both Argentina and Brazil and took podium finishes in both, second on debut for the team in Buenos Aires and third at Interlagos, while Andretti could only manage a fifth in Argentina. A sense of just how hard their year was going to become became clear in South Africa where Ferrari had a 1-2 with the debut of their 312T4 while only Andretti could manage to qualify in the top ten, although both drivers did score points. Colin Chapman’s next “great leap forward” was due to make its debut at the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch but there had been numerous unsolved problems in testing. The wingless wonder, which featured sliding skirts both under the nose cone and all the way to the rear wing endplates, was not stiff enough to cope with the down force generated and those curved sliding skirts kept sticking, rendering the cars handling utterly unpredictable. Fortunately, perhaps, the race was snowed out and both drivers showed up in Long Beach with the trusty 79. Reutemann was in scintillating form in qualifying and gave Lotus their only front row place in a championship race for the year but ignition problems at the start put paid to any chance of a good result while Mario came home in fourth again.

   By now the 80 had sprouted wings and had its skirts clipped and had its first public outing during practice for the reconvened Race of Champions. While Andretti still used the 79 to take pole and finish third in the race he was satisfied enough with the progress of the 80 to use it for the Spanish GP. On the other hand Carlos was so fed up with the 80’s unpredictability he decided he was never going to drive it again. In qualifying Andretti gave a hint that he may have made the right decision as he easily out-paced Reutemann but in the race Carlos again won out in the 79 finishing second ahead of Mario in what was to be their best result of the year. And the 80s only finish for Mario would not finish again until Monza by which time the 80 had been scrapped after racing again just twice. Reutemann continued with his fine form over the next couple of races, fourth in Belgium and second at Monaco but that’s where his point scoring would finish for the season. Andretti’s fifth at Monza was the sole other points result for the year as Lotus tumbled down the order although Reutemann did manage a second place to Lauda at the non championship race at Imola.

   Having also lost their long time sponsor, ELF, Tyrrell had produced the 009, a Lotus 79 look-alike which was good enough to be a regular top ten qualifier but was never going to seriously threaten for a win. The arrival of sponsorship dollars from washing machine manufacturer, Candy, by the Monaco Grand Prix saved the squad from financial ruin but the development that they were able to achieve only allowed the team to tread water, not advance as they would have liked. Didier Pironi was joined by Jean-Pierre Jarier, who had resurrected his career with his two superb end of season drives as Peterson’s replacement at Lotus in 1978 and the pair were evenly matched. Up to the British Grand Prix Jarier had just had the edge in both qualifying and the races and had scored podium finishes in both South Africa and Britain as well as scoring points in Long Beach, Spain and France while Pironi had finished third in Belgium and fourth in Brazil. A bout of hepatitis saw Jarier sit out the next two races, with his seat being filled by Geoff Lees in Germany and Derek Daly in Austria. Jarier returned at Zandvoort and as his health recovered took sixth at Monza and fifth at Imola while Pironi finished the year with fifth in Canada and a final podium at Watkins Glen. Derek Daly had shown enough promise in his Austrian outing to be given a drive as the team’s third driver in the final two races although he would finish neither.

    Meanwhile at Brabham, Gordon Murray had come to the same conclusion as Colin Chapman and had designed their 1979 challenger, the BT47 to be wingless. With Alfa Romeo replacing its aging, and very wide, flat 12 engine with a quite narrow V12 Murray had much to work with on the under-side of the car. This was however, an age before full scale wind tunnels and terabyte computing, and not everything that looked right, turned out to be so. Not only was the V12 horribly unreliable, it raised the Brabham’s centre of gravity and, when combined with similar problems to that of the Lotus 80, the BT47 would just not work. At least Brabham realised this earlier than their colleagues at Lotus and arrived in Argentina with one hastily revised car, the BT48 for Niki Lauda while new-comer Nelson Piquet had to start the year with the previous season’s BT46. Not that this change helped much. Lauda could only qualify the BT48 23rd on the grid, three places behind Piquet, who then wrote off the BT46 and didn’t start the race. Not a great start then. Although both had BT48s in Brazil, neither finished but by the time they arrived in South Africa the car had been seriously improved. From then on Lauda only missed out on the top ten in qualifying twice before pulling the plug on his career in Canada while Piquet had shown that he was a future champion with some blistering performances. It was just a pity that they rarely finished. Lauda’s highlights were sixth in South Africa, fifth in the Race of Champions, fourth at Monza and a win, in what was his last race, at Imola while Piquet took second, with Fastest Lap, in the Race of Champions and fourth in Holland as well as a few minor placings. By seasons end the team were so fed up with their detonating Alfa engines they debuted the Ford Cosworth powered BT49 in Canada, just as Lauda decided he didn’t “want to go round and round in circles” anymore. After the Friday morning practice session, Lauda abruptly quit the sport and was replaced by Ricardo Zunino. Possibly an unwise move as the BT49 would prove to be quick out of the box and one of the leading cars for the next three years, by which time, Lauda would have returned in the McLaren.

   McLaren were trying to recover from the disaster that 1978 had become. The M26, which had been so quick at the end of 1977 was hopelessly outclassed in 1978 and this had seen their World Champion driver, James Hunt depart for what he hoped were pastures greener. Hunt had going to be replaced with Ronnie Peterson, but his sad demise saw John Watson join from Brabham to join the promising Patrick Tambay who had shown good pace in 1978. Their initial attempt at a ground effects car, the M28, was even less stiff than the Lotus 80, to the extent that the chassis would flex under load. Watson’s third place in Argentina, was like Andretti’s in Spain, a false dawn, and when Tambay’s car was destroyed in the first start accident, he would be forced to use the M26 in Brazil. From that point both drivers would struggle to qualify in the top half of the field and despite major upgrades through B and C versions the M28 was soon to be discarded. Watson would manage a sixth in Belgium and a fourth at Monaco as the sole remaining points finishes before the M29 debuted at Silverstone. Although the M29 was a great step forward its results were not that much better as by then, vastly superior cars were hitting their strides and Watson could only manage fourth in Britain, fifth in Germany and a pair of sixths in Canada and the US Grand Prix. Tambay had suffered such a loss of confidence in the M28s that even the arrival of the M29 could not turn his year around and he would fail to score a point in the entire season.

   The little ATS team was another team that would produce two news cars through the season. The team had previously used a Penske, in 1977 and reworked Marchs in 1978 and their first in house, designed and constructed car, the D2 did little to improve their fortunes despite the brave efforts of Hans Stuck who had made the move from Shadow. Although Stuck put in some heroic performances the car was rarely far from the back of the grid but things did improve when the D3 debuted in Austria with just five races left in the season. Stuck managed a season best 12th on the grid in Canada and finished the year with a worthy fifth place, and two vital championship points at Watkins Glen.

   Ferrari were a little late getting their new car, the 312T4, onto the grid but when they did, the complexion of the season changed over night. The Scuderia had recruited Jody Scheckter to join Gilles Villeneuve and head their championship challenge. Their season got off to a quiet start with just fifth and sixth places in Brazil before they pensioned off the T3, although that car would have one final hurrah with Villeneuve taking out the Race of Champions in its last appearance. The diminutive French-Canadian was in stunning form at that point having just won the T4’s first two races in South Africa and Long Beach. Indeed Ferrari had been 1-2 in both of those races with Villeneuve taking Fastest Lap in both and Pole at Long Beach and heading to Europe he now was the championship leader. In Spain though, two spins and seventh place seemed to take the momentum out of his season just as Jody’s was increasing. Running out of fuel just 400 metres from the finish while Scheckter won didn’t help either. And then Jody won at Monaco as well while Villeneuve went out with a gearbox failure and went into the second half of the season ten points behind the South African. Villeneuve was generally the faster driver of the two and while he put on spectacular performances, Scheckter put kept banking the points. Indeed, after France, he would not finish out of the points until the final race at Watkins Glen.

    It was classic tortoise and hare stuff. Scheckter would finish on the podium just twice in the second half of the year, second in Holland and his final win at Monza but had four other point scoring drives, while Gilles would finish second in France, Austria, Italy and Canada before winning at the Glen. And some of those drives were beyond belief. The final laps at Dijon where he and Rene Arnoux had the most astonishing, wheel to wheel dice in possibly the entire history of the sport and his time in practice in the wet at Watkins Glen, where he was over nine and a half seconds faster than the next quickest driver, who just happened to be Scheckter. Jaques Laffite summed it up when he commented “he’s just in a different league to the rest of us.” As it was Villeneuve could have been the World Champion for 1979 had he taken the decision to pass Scheckter at Monza. Villeneuve though, was of a different age and believed that not breaking one’s word of honour was more important than winning, and although he was much quicker than his team-mate, he dutifully followed Jody home by under a second for a 1-2 in front of Ferrari’s home crowd. Overall, Ferrari were the class of the season despite not having the fastest car and finished the year as World Constructors champions and with Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve being winner, and runner-up in the World Drivers championship.

   Another former World Champion going into the season with high hopes was Emerson Fittipaldi. Coming off the back of his most successful season driving for the family team there was great optimism that the new, and unique F6, would finally be the car that brought Copersucar Fittipaldi Automotive its first win. Emerson took a point first time out in the old F5A and was on course for second in front of the home crowd until a lengthy pit stop when the crew changed all four wheels instead of just one dropped him to eleventh at the flag. The F6 made its race debut in South Africa and unlike Ferrari, it was soon clear that this car was not what had been hoped for. The radically short side pods meant that the car was horribly unbalanced with too much down force at the rear and no grip at the front. The F6’s racing life was brutally short, just the one race, although it did still get some track time during practice at Long Beach and Jarama before being sent away for a major re-design. This meant that the old F5A had to come out of retirement and Emerson raced it without success until the German Grand Prix when the F6A made its first appearance. A much prettier, and vastly more conventional car, the F6A still suffered from a lack of front end grip and apart from a promising performance in Canada failed to improve on the competitiveness of the F5A.

       By the end of 1978 Renault were starting to get a handle on their innovative turbo charged engine and finally scored points for fourth at Watkins Glen. For 1979 they expanded the team to two cars with ex-Martini and Surtees pilot Rene Arnoux joining Jean Pierre Jabouille. Like most teams they began the year with an updated version of their 1978 mount, the RS01, which actually dated back to the team’s debut in 1977. Despite being in a car that was now nearing two years old the V6 turbo still had enough grunt to put Jabouille on pole at Kyalami although reliability was still an issue and the RS01 would score no points in 1979. The arrival of the twin turbo RS10 changed the French team’s fortunes dramatically. Debuting in the hands of Jabouille in Spain it took a couple of races to get the RS10 sorted but when the team arrived at Dijon for their home Grand Prix they hoped they had gotten it right. And they had. And how! Jabouille won the race from pole position while Arnoux just missed second place after that astonishing dice with Villeneuve and set Fastest Lap in the process. Jabouille would be on pole in both Germany and Italy while Arnoux matched that feat in Austria and Holland so Renault started five races out of six from pole and Jabouille was on the front row for the other, at Silverstone. While they now had the speed, reliability was still a problem and Jabouille’s win in France would be his only point scoring drive of the year while Rene would add second place finishes at both Silverstone and Watkins Glen and sixth in Austria.

      Shadow was a team in terminal decline after the schism that saw half their team depart to form Arrows at the beginning of 1978. Gone was their Villiger-Kiel Swiss cigar sponsorship and gone too were their drivers, Clay Regazzoni and Hans Stuck. Joining the team were Dutchman Jan Lammers with his Samson tobacco funding and the wealthy Lotus protégée Elio de Angelis to drive updated DN9Bs. These were really nothing more than the previous years DN9s with full side pods and skirts. They were never going to be on the pace and were always near to the back of the grid although on occasions these two talented drivers did manage to reach the dizzying heights of the mid teens on the grid. Considering their lack of experience both drivers performed well and finished more often than not, with de Angelis giving notice of what would be a fine career with a fine fourth place in the season finale at the Glen, the only point scoring finish for the team for the season.

   James Hunt had joined Walter Wolf’s successful little outfit in the hopes of leaving the memories of 1978 behind him. Sadly for James, Wolf produced the worst car of its short existence and soon James’s thoughts were more on survival and retirement than trying to sort out a dog of a car. Like fellow former champions, Lauda and Fittipaldi, Hunt found himself in a car with a fundamental handling problem that would never be solved and his motivation rapidly crash-dived. With just one eighth placed finish to his name James pulled the pin on his career after Monaco and young Finnish rising star, Keke Rosberg was drafted in to fill his place. Despite his obvious desire to impress, Keke could do no better and apart from ninth on debut in France he would not finish any other championship race he started with the team. He did manage sixth at the non-championship race at Imola, before failing to qualify in Canada. By years end Walter Wolf had decided to sell up and what was left of the team was taken over by Fittipaldi Automotive but Rosberg had put in enough good performances to join the merged teams for 1980.

   Two other teams on struggle street were Ensign & Merzario. Ensign began the year with the N177, which wasn’t a particularly quick car in 1977, let alone 1979. Derek Daly was the sole driver going into the year and after a couple of finishes in South America found that he was going to struggle to qualify again, even when he got his hands on the N179, a hideous contraption with radiators down the front of the nose cone. After failing to qualify for four of the next five races Derek quit after Monaco figuring his career would be better served being a spectator than driving the Ensign. He was replaced by Patrick Gaillard who faired little better, qualifying in just two out of five attempts before newly crowned Formula Two champion Marc Surer finished out the year from Monza onwards. He only managed tow qualify once, at Watkins Glen. In a bizarre sign of the times, Arturo Merzario’s eponymous team was sponsored by a funeral home and that was appropriate as his team was on its death bed. Starting the year with an updated A1, the A1B, which was itself based on a March 761 chassis things didn’t look too rosy. Oddly enough, the very last time this car was used was the only occasion in 1979 that it qualified, at Long Beach. The A2 that replaced it was possibly even worse. Being introduced at Jarama at the beginning of the European season it didn’t qualify once before being replaced by the A4, which was a modified version of the appalling Kauhsen WK1. Unsurprisingly this car never made the cut either except in the non-championship race at Imola where little Art finally finished 11th, and last.

   Starting the year in scintillating form was Equipe Ligier Gitanes who had ditched the heavy and thirsty Matra V12 and joined the Cosworth brigade. Adding to their driving strength was former Tyrrell driver and Monaco Grand Prix winner Patrick Depailler who joined team veteran Jaques Laffite. The JS11 was an instant success locking out the front row at both Argentina and Brazil with Laffite winning both from pole position and taking both Fastest Laps. Depailler backed him up with fourth in Argentina and second in Brazil. What happened next is the stuff of legend. Or possibly just fable. According to the legend the suspension settings were just jotted down, get this, on the inside of a packet of Gitanes, which was misplaced on the way back to Europe after those first two races. Apart from finding the sweet spot again in Spain, where Depailler won, the cars were never super competitive again. Laffite would score some more podiums, second in Belgium and a run of thirds in Germany, Austria and Holland, but aside from a few minor points places that was it. Depailler didn’t help matters much when he shattered his legs in a hang gliding accident after the Monaco Grand Prix and his place was taken by veteran Jacky Ickx who was sadly never on the pace and scored just three points.

    Ending the year with what was undoubtedly the fastest car in the sports history to date, was the unfashionable Williams squad. Frank Williams had been an entrant in Formula One since 1969 and had never looked like being a winner. On many occasions he had never looked like being a qualifier. After being bought out in 1976 by Walter Wolf, Frank re-emerged in 1977 running a March for Patrick Neve before again building his own car in 1978, the functional FW06. In the hands of the aggressive Alan Jones the car had scored some good finishes and with increased money from their Saudia Airlines sponsors they began 1979 with Clay Regazzoni joining Jones in the FW06. Racing in 1979 with a non ground effects car was never going to be a winning proposition so when Jones took third in the cars final outing at Long Beach folk were somewhat surprised. Sitting, untested, unfinished and unraced in the pit lane at Long Beach was a sole FW07, the car which would be the class of the field for the next three years.

  The FW07 made its debut in Spain and it took a few races to really unlock its speed, although there were a few hints of what was to come. Jones started on the second row in Belgium. Regazzoni was second at Monaco, though that was more his bristling moustache than the car. Both drivers scored points in France. And then Patrick Head designed a new cover for the underside of the engine and saw the results in the wind tunnel. Jones was on pole by over a second at Silverstone and the team was staring down the face of an utterly dominant 1-2 before a fractured water pipe spelled the end of Jones’s race. After three years for Clay, and a decade for Frank, finally a win was theirs. And surely never was one  more popular.  The remainder of the season was dominated by the Williams team. Victories in Germany, Austria and Holland gave the squad four in a row but then came Monza and the best they could manage was Regazzoni in third behind the Ferraris and their newly crowned World Champion. Jones won again in Canada with pole position and fastest lap lifting him to third in the championship and Williams to second in the Constructors Championship. For a team that had struggled for so long, an era of glory was just beginning.

   Meanwhile over at Arrows, the other half of the Shadow schism of ’78, things were going backwards as they often do for teams in their second season. Rolf Stommelen had been replaced with Jochen Mass, another German to make Warsteiner happy and he joined rapid Italian Riccardo Patrese in the team. The team would start the year with the A1 that had been introduced in a hurry half way through 1978 and it would score more than half of the teams points in 1979. Mind you, that was only three out of five points. The prob